Rasa and the brain


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This slideshow is for a presentation I made in my music theory class at the University of Michigan. I hoped to show the links between Indian music and the human brain. More research deserves to be done on this subject.

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Rasa and the brain

  1. 1. Rasa, Music, and the Human Brain (How to master your emotions and live a better life)
  2. 2. What is Rasa?• Natya Shastra (200 BC – 200 AD), Bharata Muni; treatise on performing arts• “Navarasa”, nine rasas• Positive: Love, joy, peace, courage, awe, pathos• Negative: Fear, anger, disgust• Manifest as energy in prana – our unconscious self• Rasa can be translated as “juice,” “taste” or “flavor,” but also as “blood plasma”• Rasa Sadhana – a way of bringing unconscious emotions (rasas) into consciousness and gaining mastery of them by ‘emotional fasting’
  3. 3. Neuroscience basics• Neural networks, consisting of neurons, are our “hard drive”• Patterns of behavior create lasting impressions – pathways through which messages are relayed to parts of the brain• Neurotransmitters, chemicals, relay these messages• Neurotransmitters are associated with positive emotions and feelings (ex., dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin).• GABA inhibits negative emotions• Negative emotions are generally caused by an imbalance in the amount of these chemicals
  4. 4. “Finding” emotion• Using fMRI scans, it is possible to measure blood flow to brain areas during emotional states. Some areas include:• Amygdala (fear/stress response)• Cingulate cortex (courage)• Insular cortex (desire)• Orbitofrontal cortex (motivation)
  5. 5. What were those rasas again?• Shringara – love• Hasya – joy• Shanti – peace• Adbhuta – awe• Veera – courage• Karuna – compassion• Bhayanaka – fear• Raudra – anger• Vibhatsa - disgust
  6. 6. West meets East• Neurotransmitters = Rasas• Both are liquids• Dopamine triggers excitement and motivation (Shringara/love, Hasya/joy)• Serotonin triggers feelings of calm and bliss (Shanti/peace)• Oxytocin, through vulnerability, creates a bond between the individual and the other (Adbhuta/awe, Karuna/compassion)• BDNF, a neurotrophin (not a neurotransmitter) may be responsible for Veera/courage)• Deficits in these chemicals can lead to the three negative rasas, along with other, lesser known neurotransmitters
  7. 7. West meets East (cont’d)• Neurotransmitters (rasas) communicate to neurons (prana) to build neural networks (the unconscious).• Brain areas in prana (according to some studies):• Love – Caudate nucleus• Joy – Inferior temporal gyrus• Peace – Left prefrontal cortex• Awe – Vagus nerve• Courage/Fear – Anterior cingulate cortex• Compassion/Disgust – Anterior insular cortex• Anger – Lateral orbitofrontal cortex
  8. 8. Rasa Sadhana• A way of strengthening emotional balance• Using meditation, focus on one rasa at a time• This is precisely what Indian music compositions do!• The intent is to build neural networks based on positive rasas, and avoid negative rasas, and ensure neuroplasticity, or the ability to function effectively as a person
  9. 9. Rasa in aesthetics• Shringara rasa is considered the “best” rasa; it may be the most popular• However, Shanti is considered by theorists to be the most fundamental; it gives rise to all the others. Out of bliss arises all emotion, and into bliss it returns.
  10. 10. Rasa in music• The swaras (tones) of a raga correspond to certain rasas, although this correspondence can change depending on the raga, the position of the tone (lower or higher), and how the swaras are used in context of the composition• According to karnatik.com, the following is true:• Pa = Shringara, Hasya• Ga, ni = Karuna• Da = Vibhatsa, Bhayanaka
  11. 11. Music and brain research• Music stimulates neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, etc.) – the chemicals of emotion• It communicates to the frontal cortex via the amygdala• Music also stimulates alpha and theta waves• Other brain areas are activated as well• These effects have been shown through fMRI studies in human subjects• Trained musicians have different brains than everyone else (more going on in the frontal lobes)
  12. 12. Does music “express” anything?• "For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being."• Igor Stravinsky (1936). An Autobiography, p.53-54.
  13. 13. What is music?• If Stravinsky is correct, music is not something that contains emotions. In fact, this is true. Music is a collection of things to which we ascribe values; however, emotion resides in the self, not in abstraction. As it is proven through neuroscience, emotion has locations and acts through physical means.• Therefore, what is music? Music is merely a medium through which a performer may express his or her emotions to a listener. It is not a crutch to lean on, but a means by which to explore authenticity and reality.• Stravinsky may have been saying that he, personally, as a composer did not feel anything toward his creation, but this does not discredit composers who feel things very deeply. Clearly, Indian composers create music with rasa in mind: a way for a performer to achieve one of nine emotions. Whether the composer felt those rasas themselves, or is leaving it up to the performer, is a question that could be addressed at some other time.
  14. 14. East meets West• It is uncommon for a Western musician to focus on communicating a single emotion for an extended period of time when performing. However, this could be very beneficial for the listeners.• For instance, if the performer achieves an evocation of Shanti rasa, the brains of the audience will be flooded with serotonin and calm down.• Much has been done to study the effects of Western music on the brain; witness the “Mozart effect” cited by parenting sages. However, without the idea of Rasa, a work of art can only go so far towards making a psychophysical transformation in its intended audience.• Perhaps Rasa theory should be taught in music schools in the west, so that “music therapy” would become a redundant phrase, not merely a branch of counseling
  15. 15. Your Brain on Carnatic Music• Compositions are by Tyagaraja, unless otherwise indicated• Shringara: Namasankeerthanam (unknown composer)• Hasya: Vara Raga Laya• Shanti: Shanti Nilava Vendum (by Sethumadhava Rao)• Adbhuta: Rama Ragu Khula• Veera: Rama Bana• Karuna: Sri Rama Paadama• Bhayanaka: Etula Brotuvo• Raudra: Chalamelara• Vibhatsa: Nidhi Chala Sukhama